We're now several months into the Trump administration, and activists have scored some important victories in those months. Yet, there is always more to be done, and for many people, the question of where to focus and how to help remains. In this ongoing "Interviews for Resistance" series, we talk with organizers, agitators and educators not only about how to resist but also about how to build a better world. Today's interview is the 79th in the series. Click here for the most recent interview before this one.
Today we bring you a conversation with Patrick Blanchfield, an associate faculty member at the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research. Blanchfield writes about violence and guns in American culture and politics, and in this interview, discusses why knee-jerk reactions to mass shootings will only perpetuate the status quo.
Sarah Jaffe: We had talked before about how hard it is to have a discussion about guns and gun violence and mass shootings in the framework of resistance. To start off, I thought I would ask you about the discourse that happens after these mass shootings, and the political demands that are sort of assumed, the lack of political demands on one side and the political demands that are assumed by the people left-of-center?
Patrick Blanchfield: The thing that is really striking to me in the wake of all these mass shootings -- and I have been doing this for many years now -- is realizing how much of what people articulate as their immediate political desires are really about, "This is how I would like the world to be otherwise. I would like to have a world in which this doesn't happen. I would like to have a world in which there is no gun violence." There is a temptation in that space to immediately endorse certain policy propositions. You are so wedded to that outcome, that people who are otherwise very self-reflective leftists, wind up sounding a lot like proceduralist law enforcement national security Democrats or even "moderate" Republicans. So, if we want to frame this in terms of resistance, I think the way to think about resistance and gun violence that is the most helpful is to actually resist the immediate framing of it and try to come up with a different handle on it.
Just because guns are in the mix doesn't mean that we should suddenly endorse carceral solutions.
Yes, and that is a really tough thing. We are unfortunately used to these things happening now. We know the political slots we are supposed to fall into, and people tend to talk as if there is a fully fleshed out "gun control" framework that is only being held up by the Republican majority in Congress or only being held up by NRA donations.
There is some way in which it is immensely emotionally satisfying, for example, and necessary, politically, to see when liberal journalists share such-and-such a Congressman got $10,000 last year from the NRA. Such-and-such a Congressman got $15,000. That is dispositive of how corrupt our system is and the character of regulatory capture, but on another level, if that were all that was in play, then it is not a lot of money. That is a couple of dinners at a DC steakhouse. Then, the left would just be like, "Give that same Congressman $12,000. Give them $16,000. Just outbid the NRA," but clearly, something else is going on, because that is not happening. Even if you were to have that money -- and there are anti-gun forces out there that are fairly well moneyed -- they are not doing that. It doesn't seem to work.
One of those people that is ostensibly in this gun-control space is Michael Bloomberg who was the mayor of New York under the stop-and-frisk regime that was ostensibly, again, about guns. The whole justification for racist stop-and-frisk policy by the New York Police Department was to find guns. Michael Bloomberg is the 10th-richest person in the world. He could easily buy some Congressmen if it was about money. But the policies that he would put forward as "gun control" are concerning, to say the least.
There is a way in which the moment guns enter the mix -- people have this immediate aversive or really enthusiastic response one way or another. That has actually been documented by psychologists. I hold up a photo of a gun in a cognitive psych lab, people are going to have a reaction one way or another. They may later describe it as something, but their pulse is going to rise. It is a super over-coded object. Even saying the word does stuff to people.
There are a lot of people who will cite figures on gun homicide that exclude killings by police.
Particularly, there are a lot of us who have very sophisticated politics about things like policing, about things like misogynistic violence, about things like violence perpetrated against sexual and gender minorities. The trick is to understand that the phenomenon and the landscape of gun violence is an organic continuation of the broader landscape of other kinds of violence in this country, and just because guns are in the mix doesn't mean that we should suddenly endorse carceral solutions that we wouldn't for other things. The trick is to not fall into the trap of that immediate desire for a knee-jerk response.
We have gotten to the point where a "regular" mass shooting, which I think is four or more people, isn't even enough to get national news coverage anymore. It has to be something like Las Vegas, which is the worst mass shooting by one person in modern US history. And we are not really having a conversation. We are having a war of statements. But we only have any of this when there is something so horrific that people feel forced to respond.
Two concepts that I want to have people feel more intellectually limber about (but also capable of thinking their own way through emotionally) are gun violence, on the one hand, and mass shootings on the other. You will oftentimes see in mainstream media statements about gun violence or mass shootings or data even -- numbers about both those things that if you push at them, will reveal some really striking agenda-driven political blank spots or omissions. To take one really good example, there are a lot of people, a lot of journalists, who will cite figures on gun homicide that exclude killings by police. Which, again, seems to be a problem.
This is another thing I want to really, really beg people to walk away from embracing in a knee-jerk way: What are the benchmarks that we apply to what the US should be like? You frequently see people say, "Well, the US isn't anything like other OECD developed nations or wealthy nations." Oftentimes, those sample sets -- and you will see in very illustrative graphs -- will show a really marked gap between the US and Scandinavia, but tellingly, always excludes Mexico, which is an OECD developed state and which gets most of its guns from us.
"Gun control" is just another vector for expanding the security state. Leftists should demand something other than that.
So, the question is, "What are we obscuring, and what are we gaining politically, by comparing ourselves to states that we don't really resemble versus ones that we actually really do?" The answer is a type of erasure of the real political asymmetries of power and racial difference in the US.
We use those same metrics, those same sort of comparisons when we are talking about health care which is obviously incredibly relevant when talking about gun violence and gun deaths. We use those same references to Western European countries when talking about health care systems that we also don't have.
States that have a much higher standard of living overall ... have a much lower index of inequality, [and] don't have anywhere near resembling the same sort of cyclical problems that are produced by a revolving-door prison apparatus. There is an odd way in which we keep on wanting to be something other than what we are, rather than looking at what we actually are and can be. That gap is present in the gun debate ... health care is probably the other example. I am hard-pressed to think of any other domain of public discourse where we look to these benchmarks that are nothing like what we are. I think the political dividend is just to erase the realities of inequality and violence that we otherwise are very aware of.
The piece that you wrote at n+1 in response to this latest mass shooting was to point out that the thing about mass shootings that is horrifying to the average person who doesn't worry about the more everyday gun violence that happens in a lot of places, is the moment where it is equal -- when there is a random person shooting random people on the street. Then there is nothing in our systems of inequality that can protect you.
This actually goes into this definition that I want us to tease apart. The definition of mass shooting itself is a moving target. You ask the FBI what constitutes a mass shooting, I think it is three or four or more people are killed in a single setting by one shooter. But if you were to ask a newscaster, a well-intentioned person, they would tell you it is a spree shooting in a church or a school or a college campus or a business park.
Gun violence, whether it be mass shootings or partner murder, is an organic continuum with other kinds of violence in society.
What that means, practically speaking is, from a certain standpoint, if you have 17 people shot in 15 minutes, non-fatally in a block party in New Orleans, as happened two or three years ago, that is "technically speaking" not a mass shooting. Certainly not a mass shooting that is reported as such in the mainstream media. The question then becomes: How do we think about this other category of gun violence in a way that accommodates these spectacular acts of violence as in Vegas, as in Sandy Hook, as in so many other places, but that also doesn't take them as a radical exception from a norm just because they happen more often than not to involve white people or wealthy people or people who -- this is the implicit logic -- "shouldn't expect to get shot"?
Trump has used Chicago as his example of a horrifically violent place that has a lot of guns. Obviously, Chicago has a racialized connection to President Obama, but Trump's response, which is an applause line at his ongoing campaign rallies, is to threaten to send in the military. We see this kind of response regularly to the idea of gun violence from Trump, but also from Democrats who run cities like St. Louis -- the response to "regular" gun violence is to just arm the cops more. Then, the response to spectacular mass shootings is: "We need gun control."
It is a weird cognitive dissonance because, again, people who are otherwise extremely intellectually sophisticated vis-a-vis things like the war on drugs or just occupation-style policing will not seem to question who is going to be going door-to-door collecting the guns if we want to do an Australian style buyback, which, of course, we would never do. But if we do want to take away all the guns, what is the mechanism?
Unless we have a politics that can address those material and emotional conditions of unsafety, people are still going to be buying guns.
I am not trying to bog us down in the policy, but do we actually think that the enforcement of that will not, in and of itself, partake of the same horrible injustices and unnecessary violence that our other mechanisms of enforcement do? There are frequently comparisons that are drawn in a lot of the literature between guns and drugs in so far as guns, like a lot of drugs, are things that people "feel passionately about," but also are small and easy to conceal. Just thinking about it materially like that, this is going to mean searches of peoples' homes. When you consider how easily a lot of people co-signed Bloomberg's stop-and-frisk just because it was [claimed to be about] guns, I think in good conscience, if we just say, "We are just going to stop and frisk Black people because they may have drugs," a lot of liberals are like, "No, no, no." But, because it is guns, suddenly, we are like, "Okay. Do it. Go for it."
We saw John Lewis, of all Congress people, leading this sit-in on the floor of the House for including no-fly list data in gun background checks.
It was a no-fly list. No fly, no buy. That basically means that if you are in any of several highly opaque and incredibly faulty and constantly metastasizing government databases, you can't fly and you can't buy a gun. John Lewis, I have profound respect for, but it is one of those points that I am like, "Is this the best we can hope for?" Which is "gun control" that basically is just another vector for expanding the security state. I think the job of leftists is to demand for something other than that.
I was reading interviews with the people at the gun shop that the guy in Vegas bought his guns from, and they were like, "Yes, he passed the background check. He had never had any criminal offenses." You think the most common predictor for this kind of gun violence is domestic violence. When we are talking about a warning sign like domestic violence that is just highly likely to be not reported to police in the first place, it would not show up on a background check of a lot of people. People are talking about background checks; background checks have got to be the thing. This guy passed them all.
And we are hearing now, people doing shoe leather reporting went to the local Starbucks where they got coffee and the baristas were like, "Oh yeah, he is the guy who treated his partner like trash every morning."
This goes to that point where gun violence, whether it be mass shootings or partner murder, is an organic continuum with other kinds of violence in society. The way to think about it is if you want to think about what guns do in those spaces that are already saturated with violence, is they basically precipitate or accelerate lethal outcomes. So, whatever our politics are going to be in terms of our responses to gun violence as a category, it has to be coherent alongside our consciousness of those other broader kinds of violence, rather than just trading one kind of violence for another. It is not like police don't have a problem with domestic violence in their homes.
One of the things you were watching on the day of this in Las Vegas was, of course, the gun stocks going up. I wonder if you can talk about that part of this whole equation.
This, again, points to that broader theme: This type of violence and this type of culture of violence is related to broader cultures and broader sectors of violence. Arms, as an industry broadly, thrives on people using arms. This is another thing, too, that a lot of specifically white liberals should not view with contempt. When people feel unsafe, when there is the possibility of physical harm, and particularly when you can't trust the authorities to vindicate your own desire for safety and in fact, the authorities may be a source of threat, people make decisions that -- from the perspective of those who are more secure -- may seem foolish. They may choose to arm themselves. The reality is that in that space, I have a very hard time begrudging them for making that choice.
Instead of falling into the wormhole of gun control debates on the national level, think about gun deaths on the local level.
Yes, the desire to be the person who pulls a gun on a mass shooter and save yourself is belied by reams of data that say, "That won't work. You are more likely to get killed by cops." But people are still in this hard spot where they have to make a choice, and so they buy guns. There is a way in which the arms industry -- which exists thanks in no small part to federal government subsidies -- we should say, caters to that. But there is also a way in which simply focusing on the manufacturers wh[o] reap an outrageous profit, or focusing on the NRA occludes the fact that people are buying their product regardless of the byzantine politics of lobbying or the subliminal messaging of ads, etc. They are doing it because they feel unsafe. Unless we have a politics that can address those material and emotional conditions of unsafety, people are still going to be buying guns.
We broadly don't have a society that makes people feel safe and protected. Obviously, as we mentioned about domestic violence, I think it is worth noting that most of these mass shooters are men of various backgrounds and ethnicities, but when we talk about that, those things sort of point to the bigger, scarier social questions that we have to grapple with on a level that doesn't have a bill we can pass through congress to abolish patriarchy.
One of the things I do, I read a lot of gun-centric publications, I read a lot of industry material, and I read a lot of the scholarly [literature], and it is striking how super gendered it all is.... It seems crude to say that for a certain sector of the populace, guns are just their big penises. But then, you hear what people had to say about Hillary Clinton and what they wanted to do to her with their guns. I won't get granular enough; there were a lot of talk radio hosts who said some things that you are like, "Oh, okay. That really is a penis."
Look to where people are suffering locally and there you will also find helpers who are trying to deal with it.
Or you see an ad from Bushmaster just prior to the Sandy Hook shooting and that was very literally like, "Get your man card back. Buy an AR-15." If that were in a satirical novel, you couldn't have a more on the nose "Hey men! Do you feel castrated? Here, buying this gun will re-masculinize you."
My favorite was the politician who had the bacon on the gun barrel.
It was Ted Cruz! The image of Ted Cruz's face eating steaming bacon off the barrel of a machine gun, just like the sizzling and the grease, it's going to haunt me for the rest of my days.
Also, this implicates, for example, a lot of discourse on the left where it is like, "Well, we just need sufficiently, militantly armed leftists." I would be happy to talk about the role of weapons in leftist organizing over the past century, and that is not a thing to be diminished. But on another level, I have yet to see a single study that says that leftist men are less likely to shoot their partners. We have got to have politics that does something about that.
We have been talking a lot about what doesn't work and which solutions are too easy to reach for in these moments. I do want to turn to questions of what can be done. Rightly, in moments like this, a lot of people want to do something. What are some of the things that you have seen that are "doing something" that seems positive about the broad issue of guns and violence and health care and safety in the US?
The big theme, there's two parts. One is, just resist the frame. The Democratic Party does not need you to support expanding the no-fly list in order to give the NRA what it deserves. The Democratic Party can take care of that themselves. They will keep doing it. That is the one thing that they will do a sit-in for; they are willing to go to bat for it. Instead of even falling into the wormhole of gun control debates on the national level, think about gun deaths on the local level. Think about who in your community is the most vulnerable to winding up dead because of a bullet.
When you start asking that question, you see across the country some really surprising grassroots coalitions coming into being, or operative for some time, that are doing really substantive things that are helping lower that toll of violence ... the way in which gun laws have taken shape, particularly over the last 30 or 40 years, means that most interventions that are meaningful are happening on the state, or ... on the municipal levels ... legislatively, but also in terms of activism.
If you are in a place like Chicago or Louisville or St. Louis or any of numerous municipalities where the major driver of gun deaths is "gang violence" -- [this is] basically retaliatory violence between social sets that have no course of vindication through law. There is a robust panoply of activist groups that are doing this. One example, MASK: Mothers Against Senseless Killing, or Mothers of the Movement, which is an organization of mothers of various high-profile young Black men and women who have been killed by vigilantes or police.
There are church groups that will do things like patrolling the streets at night and talking to people, which actually, surprisingly, has a real effect. There are a variety of church groups that will also do things like gang outreach, some of them not involving the police, which is particularly helpful. They are like, "You know who the young men are in your neighborhood who are likely to commit an act of violence," and when you hear through the grapevine that there is something that has happened for which they are going to retaliate, someone from the church calls them up and says, "Do you really want to do this?" and that stops it. That doesn't necessarily involve the police, that doesn't necessarily involve your local senator, and it doesn't involve the Democratic Party, but it actually can be meaningful.
So, a good place to go if you are in an urban setting is to find out what specifically the Black churches are doing. Now, if you are in a more rural space, likely the most leading drivers of gun deaths are suicides and domestic violence. There, again, there are surprising activist groups and surprising coalitions that are emerging. For example, in New Hampshire and in Kentucky, there is something called The Gun Shop Project, which is actually gun store owners talking to people who come into their shops. They have been trained by medical professionals to look for signs in people who are near suicide and all they do is ask them, "Do you really want to buy this gun or do you want me to hold it a couple of days?" That has been demonstrated to actually lower suicide rates.
A lot of people are like, "Oh my god. Gun shop owners, they are icky." Sure, you can feel that way, but at the point at which this person is taking a sobbing woman or man away from the counter, being like, "You don't need this right now. How about you come in the back and have a cup of coffee and call your doctor," that is a real intervention. Then, there is some similar stuff that is happening in terms of domestic violence, as well.
Rather than taking your notes from the national level, look to where people are suffering locally and there you will also find helpers who are trying to deal with it. The trick is, again, if you are not necessarily buying into the pro-gun/anti-gun frame, but just focusing on the people being hurt, you are going to find some surprising allies. That won't necessarily change things nationally, but it will make a difference where you are.
There is some room for straight-up voting and for calling your Senators and for all of that. There is a way in which, when mass shootings happen, they are a trap. I am not saying they are false flags. They are very, very real. But, I am saying that discursively, politically, we have this immense desire to do something in reaction to them that feels emotionally proportional to the horror that they have given us. When you see 60 people dead, it is an understandable emotional view [to think], "I want to take all those guns and I want to melt them into the biggest statue ever." That is fine, but there is a way in which -- given how the news cycle works and given the way in which parties make money -- whether they be ... the Democratic Party or the Republicans, or parties like the NRA -- simply embracing that impulse actually just perpetuates the status quo.
There are a ton of things that can, again, lower gun deaths that are not necessarily the same as gun control. For example, the need for trauma centers on the South Side of Chicago [that] activists have been able to [get] in order to vastly increase the likelihood that people who have been shot are not just going to bleed out. That is an investment of money and infrastructure that has to come from some governmental body and that is something that people can fight for.
Ditto, too, for various national-level programs that will foster that type of gang intervention stuff. You evaluate them individually, if you get to them, if they do involve some relation to the police, but the trick is, if you want to create national level change on this, you need to, unfortunately, check your very understandable desire for single dramatic gestures in favor of viewing the broader phenomenon of gun violence as a disparate collection of individual at-risk groups each of whom can be helped with different targeted interventions.
Again, you are not going to see people with signs like, "Different specific targeted interventions against gun violence now!" But that is actually what is going to fix it in a way that ... "Ban all guns" is not. That said, if politics is in this depressing space, the art of the possible, the horizon of possibility constrained by the horizon of what is imaginable ... immediately moves the discourse rightwards and moves the discourse towards the status quo not changing. There are people who want to go out there and be like, "Ban all guns." I may not agree with [them], but that is something that will help shape the discourse and make it more robust and meaningful than just the tired cycle it is.
To wrap up, when we point out the structural causes of this, they are the same structural causes that lead to us not having a universal health care system. They are the same structural causes that are causing all sorts of the inequalities that we live with every day. To deal with "gun violence" as an issue, we have to deal with inequality on micro and macro levels -- from the fact that the South Side of Chicago didn't have a Level 1 trauma center, to the fact that we don't have a functioning health care system in this country and that Las Vegas officials are setting up a GoFundMe to help the people who were shot in this moment.
It is a way in which it is understandably morally frustrating that on this issue, you wind up finding the exact same depressing structures that we otherwise confront, and the realization that there are no simple easy answers, but there are answers that require work and time and affect. On some level, why would we expect otherwise? There is a way in which the expectation [is] for radical change within the system ... the system is never going to accommodate that. Don't get me wrong, I will show up for the dictatorship of the proletariat that is going to eliminate gun violence through income redistribution. But absent that, we need to have something that is other than just a knee-jerk affective utopianism that just gets hijacked in favor of a really deadening status quo.
On that note, how can people keep up with you?
I am on Twitter at @PatBlanchfield. I have got links there. I freelance, so I have got a site that is www.carteblanchfield.com. Anyone who wants to follow me on that space, or both those spaces, [is] more than welcome.
Interviews for Resistance is a project of Sarah Jaffe, with assistance from Laura Feuillebois and support from the Nation Institute. It is also available as a podcast on iTunes. Not to be reprinted without permission.